Ira Alexandre of Lady Business has put together an extraordinarily well researched proposal for a Hugo Award for Games and ‘Interactive Experiences’. There are overview posts at Lady Business Dreamwidth page and at File 770. Accompanying the overview is an extensive Google Docs document with a longer analysis, examples and statistics. It’s not a quick read but it is a well argued piece.
There are some strong arguments for a specific Hugo Award category in this area:
- Video games and table-top games are a major way people experience science fiction and fantasy
- Worldcon members in general have a clear interest in games and gaming (no, not every member but games are a clear area of interest)
- Games do not fit well with other categories. In particular, Best Dramatic Presentation has issues including games and so does Best Related Work even if technically the categories can accommodate them.
- Games and other interactive media have unique and interesting features for conveying science-fictional/fantasy stories and aesthetics. Games aren’t just a popular medium, they are also an interesting and influential one.
I think all of those arguments are strong ones but they aren’t conclusive ones. I’m more sceptical about arguments I’ve seen around that suggest a Hugo Award for games will bring in more interest to the Hugo Awards but that isn’t a central argument of the proposal.
Weighed against the positives above is the question of how to define a category and whether it is even possible to make relative judgements in this field sufficiently well to nominate and vote. Access to games and playing time are also impediments and further complicating matters is the issue of eligibility. The extended document looks at each of these issues and attempts to address them.
The boldest aspect of the proposal is the category definition. I would have thought a very narrow definition would potentially have more success as a category but instead the proposal has gone for an extremely broad approach. It really is a very clever category definition, covering a broad field succinctly:
“Any work or substantial modification of a work (such as a game or interactive narrative, demonstration, or installation) first released to the public in the previous calendar year in the fields of science fiction, fantasy, or related subjects in any medium where player/user choice, interaction, or participation significantly impacts the narrative, pacing, play, or experience of the work.”
The definition is narrow in one sense: it focuses on the key element of user interaction with the work. That creates a simple test for whether a work is eligible or not: does user have any control over the work (beyond what somebody reading a book already has). At the same time it covers a huge field including chose-your-own-adventure books, table top RPGs, interactive stories, mainstream video games and even theme park experiences.
Is that too big of a field? Maybe but it is less all encompassing than Best Related Work. In reality, if the category is workable over time certain things will come to dominate what actually makes it as finalists and winners. What those things are may change over time but a more narrow effective definition will come into play.
Initially though, this will be hard category to vote in. The extended proposal acknowledges some aspects of that, raising directly the issue of accessing the materials:
“A concern with any new category is whether it is reasonably accessible for nominees, in terms of both cost of the materials/works and in terms of wide availability of a sufficient number of works to fill out a longlist.. The biggest AAA games are notoriously expensive, and there is a proliferation of gaming platforms that are also substantial investments. “
As the document notes, there are ways of getting the feel for games without playing the whole thing including You Tube videos of game play and other media. Non-video games though can also be both expensive and hard to access. Even if you have a regular bunch of friends with whom you play table top games, it’s still a bigger challenge to try out a game than it is to try out a book or see a movie.
Being technically possible to access a work in some way and actually doing so is an issue. I think it is the basic flaw in Best Series as a category — the Hugo Packet has often given great access to a series but I’ve just not had the time to read that much without giving up something else.
I think accessibility to the works remains one of the biggest obstacles to this category working effectively, although the proposal makes substantial efforts to address this.
My other concern is the multiple vectors against which we’d need to judge works in this category. The proposal gives numerous examples of other game awards but I’m struck by the many ways game awards split their own categories.
Consider also the many ways we can experience science-fictional/fantastic elements in media:
- In the narrative
- In the world building
- In the visual aesthetics
Those aren’t orthogonal to each other and all three already apply to Graphic Story, and Best Dramatic Presentation. If we count book covers as part of the experience of reading then all three play a part in the basic text categories as well. So, if we already cope with these disparate dimensions why would games be any more of a challenge?
Looking at just video games for a moment, part of what make this medium interesting is its capacity to extend outwards in any one of these. The added holistic dimension of what we can call ‘game play’ mean we don’t have the same kinds of trade-offs. For a film, good cinematography can only get you so far if your plot is weak but a video game can eschew narrative altogether and be wonderful. I’ve wasted months (possibly years) of my life in Minecraft worlds that have no narrative other than me compulsively building canals. The background plot to most of the Zelda games is a mediocre fantasy story about a princess, a demon and a young hero but I adore those games and the visual, puzzle world they offer.
Yes, in Best Novel as readers we might have works that trade-off the quality of the prose against the pull of the plot. We can forgive (or even love) a been-done-before setting if the characters are engaging and the plot does something new with the material. Any ranking of creative content is a trade off of multiple qualities. Yet, I think games might take this to a point of incommensurability. Of course, we won’t know that unless we try it.
I don’t have a good concluding paragraph. I’m sceptical about games as a category but Ira Alexandre has made a very good argument and I’m less sceptical than I was.